Posted by: sean | January 7, 2009

Gazan thought experiments

From Walt at the Foreign Policy blog:

Imagine that Egypt, Jordan, and Syria had won the Six Day War, leading to a massive exodus of Jews from the territory of Israel. Imagine that the victorious Arab states had eventually decided to permit the Palestinians to establish a state of their own on the territory of the former Jewish state. (That’s unlikely, of course, but this is a thought experiment). Imagine that a million or so Jews had ended up as stateless refugees confined to that narrow enclave known as the Gaza Strip. Then imagine that a group of hardline Orthodox Jews took over control of that territory and organized a resistance movement. They also steadfastly refused to recognize the new Palestinian state, arguing that its creation was illegal and that their expulsion from Israel was unjust. Imagine that they obtained backing from sympathizers around the world and that they began to smuggle weapons into the territory. Then imagine that they started firing at Palestinian towns and villages and refused to stop despite continued reprisals and civilian casualties.

Here’s the question: would the United States be denouncing those Jews in Gaza as “terrorists” and encouraging the Palestinian state to use overwhelming force against them?

Here’s another: would the United States have even allowed such a situation to arise and persist in the first place?

In another post, he links to a second thought experiment, this one by Joseph Levine, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst:

Suppose Hamas terrorists were hiding out in Tel Aviv (or Los Angeles, or London, for that matter — the exercise is equally illuminating applied to the U.S. and or any other “civilized” Western state). Would an assault of the sort we have seen against Gaza even be contemplated? Would Israeli officials grimly but dispassionately calculate the cost-benefit ratio concerning a massive aerial assault on Jewish neighborhoods? Would American and European officials condone such an attack? Would the pundits express their sympathy with Israel’s terrible dilemma? Of course not! The very idea of such an action would be recognized immediately as morally outrageous, and anyone who proposed it would be treated with contempt. You can hear the voices: What, are we just like Hamas? They don’t respect human life, but we do.

Except, of course, “we” — members of the self-consciously enlightened West — don’t – any more than “they” do. If we really acted out of the values we claim to espouse, then there would be no asymmetry in our reactions to the suggestion in the thought-experiment. Either we would acquiesce in the decision to sacrifice the people of a Tel Aviv neighborhood for the sake of the greater good, or – more likely – we would have to see Israel’s current assault against Gaza as morally out of bounds. The fact that the cases do not immediately strike us as parallel– a regrettable necessity in one case, a moral atrocity in another – betrays the existence in us of two very primitive, anti-Enlightenment impulses: racial/tribal chauvinism, and a belief in collective guilt.



  1. The inherent strawman problem in that “second thought experiment” you quote is that if Hamas were hiding out in a Jewish neighbourhood, then the local population would give them up to the authorities, and not give them able support.

    You also don’t allow that Israel is trying to avoid civilian casualties, – unlike Hamas that actively seeks them in Israeli cafes and shopping streets. Your moral equivalence here in the tolerant, democratic West is quite frightening. A balanced, considered individual would separate Palestinian suffering from Hamas’ murderous totalitarianism and propaganda.

  2. Your first point is directly in contradiction with the existence of “sleeper cells,” while your second point only begs the question: Israel tries to avoid civilians, because it tries to avoid civilians. Well, when Nizar Rayyan is targeted for assassination at home with 15 members of his family by means of a bomb, that’s not trying to avoid civilians. It makes me cringe to see people try to justify killing his four wives and at least nine of his children, by saying that he “purposely hid among his family.”

    He “hid among his family”? How is that different from “being at home”? That doesn’t sound at all like avoiding civilian casualties to me.

  3. Sean,
    “Hamas sleeper cells”? In Gaza? Give us a break. Everyone lives on top of everyone else in Gaza, everyone knows each others’ business. The idea that Hamas could operate in Gazan neighbourhoods without locals knowing about it is disconnected from reality.

    As for Nizar Rayyan, could you offer an alternative measure that the IDF could have tried?

    But essentially, is your starting point that civilians are targeted, or that civilians became casualties despite efforts made to prevent it? Because that’s entirely what this present conflict boils down to: – if Hamas had abided by the Geneva Convention, then Israel would never have had a leg to stand on in attacking Hamas.

    Please clarify your position on the deliberate targeting of civilians, Sean.

  4. Ross: I wasn’t talking about sleeper cells in Gaza, I was talking about sleeper cells in Europe or North America, for example. People could be operating in Toronto, Detroit or London with the intention of attacking Canadians, Americans or British, but we all know that despite the fact that these people would be hiding amongst Western civilians, the Canadian, American and British governments would never use the force that Israel has used in Gaza. I suspect if those people were in Tel Aviv, the same would be true.

    The fact of the matter is that Gaza is the most densely populated area in the world. No matter where Hamas is, they are likely to be close to civilians. In the case of Nizar Rayyan, he was at home with his family. The IDF knew this and knew that they would kill many members of his family, including women and children, if they bombed his home. They decided that it was worth killing 13 women and children to kill him. To my mind, that is not legitimate. If you think that it is, then imagine a member of Hamas blowing up a bus that has 1 soldier and 13 women and children on it. By your reasoning, if his primary target is the single soldier and the other people just “collateral damage,” then blowing up the bus would be legitimate.

    I see both acts as completely illegitimate.

    Also, in international law, if one side does not follow the Geneva convention, that does not relieve the other of the responsibility to do so. In this case, both sides are guilty of war crimes and to just blame Hamas is obviously dishonest.

  5. – Which is why I said the strawman example used is erroneous. If there were sleeper cells in Tel Aviv or Toronto and the locals knew about them then they’d give them up, which is what the Gazans should have done. Otherwise the IDF would warn civilians to evacuate before firing, as they’ve been doing. That’s the total opposite of Hamas, which intentionally targets civilians. Remember just three weeks ago, the head of Hamas vowed to bomb Israelis in their “cafes and streets”?

    Hamas is to be blamed entirely for the situation in which Israel has been put, as it was their continual rocket fire that terrorised, injured and killed civilians. Hamas has proven that they have no qualms about killing their own civilians, viz the post-election Fatah pogrom, the sending of suicide bombers into Israeli shopping centres, the basing of military targets in civilian areas and buildings. Everyone feels for the Palestinians, but Hamas are murderous, totalitarian thugs who
    don’t give a fig about human rights, truth, justice, democracy or Geneva Conventions. Where was the UN and Ban Ki, Sarkozy and the rest of you protesters throughout Hamas’ violations? Why the silence?

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